Before we start talking about video games as art, or the therapeutic implications of art, or how theories of art therapy can translate into creating video games, we really need to lay the groundwork of what all of these terms mean, at least in this context. Think of these definitions as part of the foundation upon which Paper Cranes is built on.
With the way that society has built up the concept of fine—or "high"1, as we can call it—art, it is rather easy to fall into a very conventional and restricting definition of what art is, and what it must entail to be considered art. Museums and scholars have set precedence that art must be a grand display of both technical and conceptual skill: art is the Renaissance masters, the abstract expressionists, the "art for art's sake", as it were. Not only does this greatly limit what art can be (placing a requirement of recognition and historical value upon it to be considered art), but it also looks down upon anything that may be creative expression, but is not in the realm of the museum. In the rigid definition, such creations are commercial, personal, but not art in the strict sense of the term.
The need to divide art into two different categories—high art, or art of the museum (and thusly determined to be art of great cultural worth), and low art, or literally everything else ever made that isn't in a museum2 (or rather, anything outside of the realm that has been defined by the classic period of art historically)—greatly restricts the artist and what they can explore through creation.
The concepts that this research and project have come from completely reject this stifling definition of art. Creations do not need edification by display in a gallery or admiration by the public masses to be considered art: if there is intent to create and if the creator believes that what they have created is art, then what has been made is art, and the process by which it was made is an artistic one.3 There does not have to be a greater philosophical or thematic intent4, just the drive by the artist (or artists) to make something, anything at all, be it a traditional "fine art" in practice (such a painting or drawing), a piece in a more "commercially" geared trade (such design), or a new realm who's artistic potential has just recently been tapped (like video games, as this whole thing is about).
In broad terms, I think the need to separate "fine art" from all other art is a load of junk, so when I'm talking about art, I'm basically referring to "something that someone has created with some sort of artistic intent". That's it, it's that simple!
Granted, like with any definition, there are some caveats to the rule: while I'm laying out a very liberal definition of what art is, even by doing that, I am to some extent saying what art isn't. Art5 relies on two key principles: the intent of the artist, and how it is interpreted by an audience. If an artist were to create a sculpture, but a viewing audience receives the sculpture not as a sculpture, but just as a haphazard collection of metal junk, is it still art? On the flip side, if someone creates what they believe to be a collection of junk, but an audience hails it as an artistic masterpiece, is it art without the intent of the "artist"? Like with most things in life, it's not cut and dry, even when you're trying to make it as simple and inclusive as possible.
The nice element about this loose definition of art is that it is not only inclusive to medium and intent, but it also eliminates a factor of taste6, which for this project in particular is extremely important. The importance of art in this case is the creation of the art, not the outside reception and opinion of it. It is the creation that drives an element of therapy and healing for the artist, as it is through creation they can express—directly or indirectly—their own feelings and worldview. Thusly, in our first scenario, even though an audience may reject it as art, it is still art. In regards to the second scenario, that's a bit of a bigger question, and one that I'm not really concerning myself with for this concept: here, we're trying to focus on the effect of creation on the creator—the effect on the audience is a moot point.
Therapy, like art, is kind of this huge lofty term that most people aren't willing to approach because it has so many connotations behind it that it becomes extremely difficult to unravel properly. Are we talking about medical therapy or psychological therapy? Is therapy something that can only be properly received via meetings and sessions with a certified professional?
Firstly: the type of therapy I'm applying the concept of video game development as art therapy to throughout most of this research is more emotional therapy than anything else. As stated previously when talking about the definition of art, the effects of the creation of artwork on the artist are what is most important in this theory—a concept that is almost directly linked to the idea of an emotional therapeutic process.
This may be where this research and theory deviates from the norm: while I am by no means attempting to discount professional counseling and therapy, the ideas behind this project focus more on self-therapy methods, despite using examples of professional therapy uses of both art and video games. Creation is a tool for an artist to engage themselves in introspection in order to understand their thoughts, emotions, and worldview more complexly, and in doing so, come to a greater understanding of themselves.
Therefore, the concept of therapy in this project focuses less on the way it is applied and more on the effects it produces: if an action or a method allows for one to examine themselves and come to a greater understanding for their own emotions and worldview, and perhaps even helps them overcome some metaphysical obstacle they were facing, then that action is a therapeutic one.
To clarify, allow me to provide a personal example: most of my own art—and in turn, the game that this whole concept spawned, Paper Cranes—is a method of introspection. Each art piece that I create allows me to look at a certain aspect of myself and analyze it intently, allowing me to realize elements about my personality, about who I am as a person and who I want to be. I achieve this introspection not only through the finished work, but the act of working. Thusly, my creative process is also a therapeutic process.
Now, here's probably the most difficult part of all of this: defining art and therapy, while still quite a task, is nowhere near the beast that is figuring out what video games are so they can be talked about properly. The main issue is that video games as a medium are still relatively new in the grand scheme of things: whereas art can be traced back thousands of years, video games have only cropped up in the past forty years (using the classic Pong as a baseline: video games existed before then in various forms, but Pong is often considered the quintessential start to video games as a mainstream genre), and thusly, what constitutes a video game is often under scrutiny.
For example, just because of hardware limitations, video games in the 70s and 80s had to rely on innovative gameplay to engage a player: nothing had laid groundwork for what video games could and could not be, so it was wildly open to interpretation, leading to some paragons of the medium that have withstood the test of time (such as The Legend of Zelda and other classics) as well as some that certain companies would rather pretend were never made (if you haven't heard of the Atari E.T. landfill, look it up. It's hilarious and totally true). As time went on and the technology developed, more attention could be focused on aesthetics and story of a game instead of just having to convey its meaning through gameplay alone.
In summary, there are mainly three elements that make a video game—gameplay mechanics (how the game functions, what the player must accomplish to advance, what action must a player understand and master in order to succeed), story (a narrative through line for the game; sometimes lack of this can create an interesting game as well), and aesthetics (visual graphics, music, and so on)—but one element that makes video games unique from every other medium—player agency.
No matter the quality of gameplay, story, or aesthetic, one thing remains constant throughout video games as a whole: they are an active experience, one that requires user input to be complete. How the game reacts to user input is up to interpretation: games such as Portal that provide the player with a mute protagonist and an unreliable narrator allow the character's agency to completely merge with the player's agency. In other games one is simply guiding a defined character along a pre-set narrative, allowing a player to empathize and connect with a protagonist, but there is a definite divide between player and avatar.
But again, in regards to the concept of video game development as art therapy, player agency is diminished in importance in order to emphasize the creator's ability to express themselves through any or all of the elements that encapsulate a video game experience (gameplay, story, aesthetic). With this in mind, it becomes less of a discussion of what makes a good video game (since that is often where the discussion turns in these situations) but more of an open-ended conversation of how does creator intent and vision factor into the creation of a video game. Much like art, we remove the concept of taste, and focus more intently on creator agency.
1: As in "high society", all the pomp and circumstance, that sort of stuff. (Back to text) 2: Alright, this is hyperbole on my part, and probably some of my content for museums sneaking in. Maybe take that with a bit of a grain of salt. (Back to text) 3: This does not take into account instances of art that may be inherently harmful to others, like "performance art pieces" that are basically exercises in animal abuse. That is not art, that is animal abuse, and I don't think I need to make a point of the level of terrible such things are. (Back to text) 4: Though even in just a pure exercise in creation, the artist's values do shine through in one way or another. (Back to text) 5: At least in the way it is defined here. (Back to text) 6: Unless you consider the aforementioned "harming people/beings as 'art'" as a matter of taste, but I personally don't: that's a matter of not being a terrible person and hurting people or animals, not whether or not I like a color choice in a painting. (Back to text)